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Florida manatees: a winter vacation in the springs

As warmer weather arrives, manatees prepare to leave their winter shelter in the Florida springs. Learn why manatees spend winter in the springs and get tips to keep manatees safe with a UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant expert.

Why do manatees visit the springs in the winter?

Each winter, manatees slowly make their way to Florida springs where they stay until rivers and coastal waterways are warm enough for them to return safely. Unlike dolphins and whales, manatees do not have thick layers of fat, called blubber. This requires manatees to stay in areas where water temperatures are above 68 degrees.

If they are in water that is below 68 for any length of time, manatees can go into cold shock, which is like hypothermia.

“Cold shock can be fatal for manatees,” Maia McGuire, UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant agent said. “Spring water comes up from underground and is therefore at a relatively constant temperature, about 70 to 72 degrees, year-round. Manatees have learned to use springs as warm water refuges in the winter months.”

Why do manatees leave the springs? Where do they go?

Manatees do not have access to much food while in the springs. On warmer winter days, they will leave the springs to find plants to eat and then return to the springs in the evening to stay warm. In the spring, as the rivers and coastal water temperatures start to climb and remain warm, the manatees will leave the springs until the next winter.

There are so many manatees in the springs! Can I swim with and touch the manatees?

While seeing large groups of manatees in the springs this time of year is exciting, it is important to avoid disturbing the manatees, McGuire said.

“People are not allowed to feed, give water to, or touch manatees,” she said. “Any of those activities can teach manatees to come to areas where people or boats are present. This can put them at a higher risk of being hit by boats. Manatees can also be cut by a boat’s propeller.”

If you are in an area where manatees are present, avoid getting too close to the animals, she said. This applies to any marine mammal, including dolphins.

What else can harm manatees?

“Watercraft is the top human threat to manatees,” she said. “Their gray coloration makes them difficult to see when they are swimming in the water and boats often hit them. This can cause a manatee’s ribs to be broken, which in turn can puncture the animal’s lungs.”

Slow down and keep a look out for manatees to safely avoid them while boating. Entanglement in fishing line or rope is another common threat to manatees, so cleaning up after yourself when fishing is another way to help manatees.

Why are manatees important to Florida?

“Manatees are native to Florida and their fossil records date back to prehistoric times. They are an important part of the ecosystem,” McGuire said. “They are herbivores, plant eaters, and can help keep populations of aquatic plants from overgrowing some areas.”

Remember, manatees take shelter in Florida springs for their survival and we can do our part to keep them safe. If you can’t get to the springs before they depart, check out these live web cameras that also feature highlights of manatees in Florida springs this winter.

For more information on manatees, visit McGuire’s blog.

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